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Our Words Result in a Virginia Victory for Teacher Selection of Texts

Card-8 (1)Last week Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia took a stand for Intellectual Freedom:

“… I veto House Bill 516, which would require schools to identify materials as “sexually explicit” and notify parents if teachers plan to provide instructional material containing such content…Open communication between parents and teachers is important, and school systems have an obligation to provide age-appropriate material for students. However, this legislation lacks flexibility and would require the label of “sexually explicit” to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context. Numerous educators, librarians, students, and others involved in the teaching process have expressed their concerns about the real-life consequences of this legislation’s requirements.”

His veto came as a result of much urging by NCTE members and others in Virginia. McAuliffe’s press release echoed the very words of the Action Alert the Virginia Association of Teachers of English and NCTE asked its Virginia members to send to the Governor (72 did):

“By labeling texts as “sexually explicit” because of something that occurs on one page of a text, the bill reduces a work of literature to a single passage. More importantly, the bill does not account for the context the teacher provides for analyzing and discussing a text.”

NCTE past president Leila Christenbury made a visit to the Capitol and noted when she spoke with Bob Brink, Senior Legislative Advisor to the Governor, and Jennie O’Holleran, Senior Policy Advisor:

“…Parents have a clear right to discuss with any educator the kind of reading their children are doing in class or in school and to request modifications.”

NCTE wrote a letter to the Governor asking him to veto the bill and among other things noted:

“As we understand it, HB516 would require teachers to share their syllabi with parents (already a common practice in most Virginia schools) but also to mark the texts on the syllabus as “sexually explicit” if they or someone deems them so. Champion of the bill, Laura Murphy, presented legislators with samples of “sexually explicit” material which was pulled out of the context of the novels she used as examples (e.g., Toni Morrison’s Beloved). Yet, she used these excerpts to claim the entire novels as “sexually explicit,” almost like labeling the books with a big “A” a la The Scarlet Letter. But texts used to support the curriculum in schools are selected as instructional materials in their entirety, not for one passage. It serves no purpose for anyone to focus, as many have done during the discussion of this proposed legislation, on individual words or actions in a text, or on their personal feelings about the text, because the language and situations in a work—in any text under study—must be seen in the context of the entire work and why it was chosen to promote student learning in the classroom.”

Governor McAuliffe took our counsel and then he took an important stand in support of local teachers’ and districts’ expertise in selecting texts for students.